One of the earliest decisions we made as a community was that we would not have “formal” membership. In those early days, many believed that the desire to be a place where people could belong before they believed superseded the need for formal membership. This meant, though, that we were for all intents and purposes, an elder-led community. Though we would try to lead by consensus and involve the community as much as possible, we couldn’t do “congregational government” in the traditional sense without formal membership. Everyone understood that and has (with a couple of notable exceptions) agreed with and supported the decisions the elders have made.
In leading and making decisions, we work under the rubric that a particular decision is one of three kinds: 1. Communal- that is, something we will put before the community and leave it up to them to decide 2. Elder recommendations- things which the elders have prayed, thought and discussed over and believe to be in the best interests of the community, but still want to build consensus around and won’t move on until that consensus is built and 3. Elder decisions- things which the elders through prayer and discussion have decided and implement, informing the community as necessary and as appropriate.
#1 Communal-type decisions are often related to issues where the entire community is a stake-holder and many potential good decisions or directions exist. When initially making the decision to remain in pub spaces or occupy a church-type building, this decision was left to the community. Also, at one point, we had to make a decision whether to keep a Sunday evening gathering in SW Portland going. This decision was put before and left to those who were a part of that gathering.
#2 Elder recommendations are things which the elders have prayed through and feel strongly enough that we want to make a proposal to the community. Some of these take the form of “we won’t move unless we feel there’s consensus on this” (such as a recent proposal for a community covenant) , others are more of a “unless there’s a significant community issue with this, we will go ahead” (this is how we bring new elders to the community). Some personnel issues also fit this category, as in new hires.
And last, #3 Elder decisions tend to be either high level directional issues regarding doctrine (even then, the community is involved, as when we decided to be a community affirming of women in all levels of leadership), or personnel (firing and salaries, mostly).
Even with this rubric, we often find ourselves attempting to discern just which category a particular situation or decision falls under. And as with all things, we try to do this through prayer, discussion and consensus as leaders.
But surely it’s not all that easy? Of course not. Craig Van Gelder highlights some of the issues of communal discernment in a postmodern context:
“In light of the hermeneutical turn that has developed over the past century, there is no going back to a world that can be framed in seemingly black-and-white categories. The diversity of interpretations of reality, which are manifest both in the multiperspectival character of biblical studies and the different methods used by the social sciences, makes this impossible. This means that part of the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality by drawing on a variety of methods that can inform the discernment and decision-making process. Relying primarily on one method, whether it is in relation to biblical teaching or scientific explanation, is no longer viable, if it ever was. Diverse perspectives, rooted in different methods and the particulars of social location, bring a multiperspectival dynamic into any discussion. Rather than playing out these differences around power dynamics related to personalities, roles, or the vote of the majority, which is so often the case in congregations, a more redemptive approach is to engage such differences through a process of mutual discernment. This requires leadership. This requires time. This requires a mutual commitment among those who are around the table. And this requires being Spirit-led. Reflected in this approach is the important theoretical insight that we need to develop a practice of “communicative reason” within diverse communities in order to come to shared conclusions. “(5)
In practice, our seasons of discernment have ranged from 3 months to a year. They often start and end with prayer meetings. As a community, we have generally eschewed anything like a “business meeting” but have always incorporated prayer, silence/reflection and listening into our times of discernment. In that way, we are somewhat Quakeresque (6), in that we desire these times to be a meeting for worship in which business is conducted and decisions discerned.
Around this structure of times of prayer come online and in-person discussions, both formal and informal. We use the online discussions and formal discussions to attempt to answer questions and objections, and to make sure that all viewpoints are heard. We have one elder in particular, Sarah, who is skilled in getting to the place where everyone feels, whether we go in their desired direction or not, that they have been heard and understood. The less-formal conversations generally take place in home communities, around tables and among small groups or individuals. We use these to get a sense of where the community is at as we seek for consensus and the answer to the question “What are WE hearing from God.”
Often, at the end of one of these seasons, we have reached that place where we can say “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” and we are able to move ahead. In cases where that is not true, we generally forgo moving ahead in favor of further process.
To be continued…
5 Craig Van Gelder, Ministry of the Missional Church, The: A Community Led By The Spirit, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007. (Loc 1521, e-edition)
6 Paul Anderson, “The Meeting for Worship in which Business is Conducted.” Quaker Religious Thought 106-107 (November 2006): 26-47